PHOENIX — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the situation surrounding Robert Sarver in a news conference Wednesday, one day after the league announced it had suspended and fined the longtime owner of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury.
The punishment handed down was the result of an independent investigation launched in November 2021 following a bombshell ESPN story accusing Sarver of racism and sexism within a hostile work environment. The NBA’s decision to suspend Sarver for one year has largely been met with criticism among current and former NBA players, fans around the league and members of the media. Silver explained some of the decision-making behind Sarver’s discipline at the NBA Board of Governors press conference in New York.
“Let me reiterate, the conduct is indefensible. But I feel we dealt with it in a fair manner. And, in both taking into account the totality of the circumstances, not just those particular allegations, but the 18 years, in which Mr. Sarver has owned the Suns and the Mercury,” Silver opened with. “Part of the goal in being transparent here, and that isn't issuing a public report, of course, it's so that whether it's the media, the public can draw their own conclusions in the same way I did.”
NBA superstar LeBron James also weighed in Wednesday, saying, "Our league definitely got this wrong."
Sarver’s situation drew comparisons to that of former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who Silver banned from the NBA for life in April 2014 in what became a career-defining moment early in his tenure as NBA Commissioner.
When asked how the situations differ and whether or not Sarver’s punishment is justifiable, Silver pointed to how quickly audio of Sterling’s racist comments was disseminated on the Internet.
“This case is very different… It's not that one was captured on when the other isn't, because as we went through this investigation -- and what was pointed out in the investigative report -- is Mr. Sarver, ultimately, has acknowledged his behavior. So, there may be some disagreement around the edges. But it's not really about a factual dispute here. It's not Mr. Sarver saying, ‘I never said that’. What is lost, though, and differentiating between the facts in this situation and Donald Sterling, is the context,” Silver explained. “For me, the situations were dramatically different. I think what we saw, in the case of Donald Sterling was a blatant, racist conduct directed at a select group of people… In the case of Robert Sarver, first of all, we're looking at the totality of circumstances over an 18-year period in which he's owned these teams. And, ultimately, we made a judgment. I made a judgment that in the circumstances in which he had used that language and that behavior, that while, as I said, it was induced into indefensible, it’s not strong enough. It’s beyond the pale in every possible way to use language and behave that way but that it was wholly of a different kind than what we saw in that earlier case.”
While Silver made mention of Sarver acknowledging his behavior, that was not the tone initially taken by the longtime team owner and Suns Legacy Partners, LLC.
In statements provided on Nov. 4, 2021, Sarver referred to the story as “inaccurate and misleading” adding that “he n-word is not part of my vocabulary.” However, one of the NBA’s key findings from the investigation revealed that Sarver “on at least five occasions during his tenure with the Suns/Mercury organization, repeated the N-word when recounting the statements of others.”
Silver noted that the law firm, investigators and judge that looked into the Sterling accusations were the same that looked into Sarver’s.
“While there are these terrible things, there are also many, many people who had very positive things to say about him through this process. And ultimately, I took all of that into account in making the decision that the one-year suspension plus the fine was appropriate,” Silver said. “There are particular rights here of someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to somebody who's an employee. The equivalent of a $10 million fine and a one-year suspension. I don't know how to measure that against a job. But I have certain authority by virtue of this organization and that's what I exercised. I don't have the right to take away his team. I don't want to rest on that legal point, because of course, there could be a process to take away someone's team in this league. It's very involved. And I often made the decision that it didn't rise to that level. But to me, the consequences are severe here for Mr. Sarver.”
Silver said there was no discussion around the process of removing Sarver as owner of the Suns and while he had the option to hand down a longer suspension, he landed on one year. While the investigation’s findings concluded that Sarver’s workplace misconduct was not motivated by racial or gender-based animus, Silver reiterated that Sarver’s behavior was indefensible and he believes the embattled owner is remorseful.
The Suns will be holding their Media Day on Sept. 26, where players will certainly be asked for their response to Sarver’s situation.
“I've talked to some players and those have been private conversations. I think I’ll leave it for the players to speak directly how they feel,” Silver said. “This is a league where roughly 80% of our players are Black. More than half our coaches are Black. I will say that none of them maybe are as shocked as I am.”
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